Monday, June 09, 2014

Three Components of A Leadership Ethic

While chronicling my experience of teaching leadership, I made the point that we explore three ideas of leadership: The first is that leadership is the behaviour that the leaders display; the second was that leadership is about a position and the activities that come with it; and finally, that leadership is a sort of personal ethic. I argued that I try to plod my students to explore all three ideas, and usually, once they discover the range, they settle for the third, as this is profoundly empowering. This is because leadership as a personal ethic could be achieved by anyone, at any point of their lives, as long as they could understand what that ethic is and are ready to commit to it. 

This stands in contrast with the first idea, the leadership as a personal characteristic of a few people, because this grows out of the leaders-are-born-not-made view of the world. This theory indeed falls short against the argument whether all born leaders become recognised as leaders, which, if negative, proves that leaders are still made, though certain birth factors may endow them an advantage. The second proposition, that leadership is a position, that you become a leader if people follow you, is actually the opposite: That leaders are made, not born. This may sound easier to demonstrate, but sounds intuitively wrong, and fails to explain what to make of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, for example; Clinton was a leader by definition, being the President of United States, but his failings may not be consistent with what one would expect leaders to do. Besides, one may indeed employ deceit and unfair practises to get to a privileged position, and at a time rife with such misdemeanours, it is difficult to model a consistent and defensible idea of leadership against the acts of those in a powerful position.

However, even if the third alternative looks appealing, it remains to be defined. If leadership is a set of behaviour, or personal ethic as I chose to call it, what is the distinctive leadership ethic? 

Everyone thinking about leadership may be obligated to find a personal answer, and I shall attempt to provide my own here. My sense of this ethic has three parts: a point of view about time, a point of view about others and finally, a point of view about myself.

First, I shall contend that to be a leader, one needs to have a point of view about the time one lives in. This may mean many things, but essentially, this is about accepting the temporal nature of our world and that change must happen sooner or later. Taking charge of this change is essential in the idea of leadership; and taking charge starts with having a view about what should be.

Second, to be a leader, one needs to have a distinct approach to others. My own views are affected perhaps by Kantian ethics - to always see human beings as an end in themselves and never the means to something. A leader should treat her followers, indeed everyone, as people worthy of attention and care, and this shouldn't be about using other people to get to something. Simon Sinek makes a biological case for what this should be so, which I find persuasive. (See his TED talk) Being a leader, that makes others follow you, is basically getting into this bargain of looking after others, protecting others and indeed, leading others; it is not about, as it appears sometimes, using others for own advantage.

And, finally, to be a leader, one needs to have an understanding of oneself. In our media driven cultures, it is too easy to forget that leadership is different from celebrity or charisma; more, that in fact this is not about us at all. Too many people think of themselves as special people when they are given leadership positions, though this is more about others that give them that position. This is perhaps an original Hindu idea, but let's apply it in the limited context of leadership: That leadership is being debt to your followers. This highlights the responsibility that comes with being - and without that sense of responsibility, leadership is nothing.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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